Alyssa Faeryn allowed her gaze to travel over the glittering array of guests and intercepted a shared glance between her brother, Edhar, Crown Prince of El Faeryn, and her mother, Queen Elliandre.
When her mother announced this banquet, she knew something was afoot. They could not afford such an extravagant affair with her twenty-third birthday in two weeks. A celebration her mother planned for weeks. Guests had arrived from far and wide. Men and women who were either former allies or enemies. They brought gifts that were currently hidden in the treasury, and enemies would not bring presents for a birthday yet to come.
The war had raged for fifty years, enriching some and decimating others. El Faeryn was once the crown jewel of the southern elven kingdoms, but the war had brought them to their knees, and peace bankrupted them while rebuilding their lands, safeguarding their borders, and being cut off from their trade routes crippled their former fabulous wealth.
She sometimes imagined what the kingdom must have been like before the supernatural realms gave in to their greed and discord. For as long as she remembered, significant parts of their glorious castle lay in ruins, and that which remained standing was only half habitable. It saddened her that such beauty should crumble to nothing.
Her father would not waste the last money in his coffers repairing his ancient home with the threat of his neighbors looming over them all. The great pieces of art their forefathers gathered, the books, and the artifacts were all gone now, sold to keep them afloat. She noticed how it affected her father and saw how it ate at him. It shamed him to sell his legacy.
Alyssa’s magnificent dress was the first new garment she had ever owned, and it warned her of the severity of the situation. Her other gowns were hand-me-downs from her cousins and aunts.
The lack of finery adorning her family, among the guests with their opulence, said all there was to say. The great days of El Faeryn were over, and this was their last hurrah. The twin crowns were all that remained of the famed crown jewels, and even the scepter now belonged to the ruler of a neighboring kingdom.
Elliandre glanced at her father and nodded almost imperceptibly. Alois hesitated, and the growing tightness in Alyssa’s midsection worsened when his gaze briefly rested on her. The guilt in his light gray eyes vied with determination as he rose to his feet.
She braced herself, as if expecting an attack. Silence fell as the elegant elven king lifted his glass, and her stomach plummeted. Her mouth turned dry as dust, a low-pitched ringing echoed in her ears, and she became short of breath. Her growing dread was as intense as a premonition. This was the moment of truth.
“Friends, we are gathered here for an extraordinary occasion. I have had several offers for my daughter’s hand, and although our traditions insist that female elven royalty must marry on the day of their twenty-first birthday, times have changed. On the eve of Alyssa’s twenty-third birthday, I have come to a decision regarding her future.” Only Alyssa and Elliandre noticed his hesitation.
“I thank the houses of Ellyndrill, Fallcourt, Mallinauw, Corinthal, Ballanfoure, Gellinstaff, Brannock, and Felislay for their gracious offers. You honor my family,” Alois said, lifting his goblet.
Even as the guests toasted with him, their anger and disconcertment boiled beneath the surface. The best elven royalty had vied for her hand, hoping to strengthen their bloodlines with the fabled Faeryn legacy, and they would not take lightly to being shunned. She had no idea what her father planned, but it might ignite a war if he did not accept an offer from one of those houses. Lesser things ignited feuds in the past. Discord that spanned generations.
“I have accepted Malachai Carthagan’s offer for his son Melbourne Carthagan’s hand in marriage to my Alyssa Faeryn.” He lifted his glass in another toast as everyone’s eyes slowly moved to the handsome, dark-haired werewolf prince and his beautiful sister, where they were seated near the king.
Stunned by the news, they did not react. The silence was deafening, and if her father dropped a keg of black powder among the gathered men and women, they would have been less taken aback.
Never has the hand of an elven princess been offered to a werewolf prince in marriage. Their outrage glittered in their eyes as Melbourne lifted his glass and accepted the toast.
They dared not give voice to their thoughts or their objections lest the Carthagan’s took offense. If their lands did not border on Carthagan lands or the lands of those allied with Malachai, they were indebted to him or traded with him. It put them in a precarious position, and they reluctantly raised their glasses.
Eagene Carthagan rose to her feet, speaking for her father when she addressed the gathered supernaturals. The way her gaze took in the other royals, told a story of its own. She noticed their reaction, and their unease spoke of their fear that she would inform her father. Just then, this werewolf princess was the most powerful person in the room. A negative word from her had the power to destroy kingdoms, and, under different circumstances, it might have amused Alyssa. However, it still impressed the weight of the situation upon her. It highlighted the precariousness of their position and the fragility of their kingdom until the marriage vows cemented it.
“We are honored, King Alois, to become part of your family. My father pledges his son, Melbourne, as well as our protection, our continued support, our partnership in future endeavors to open new trade routes, and our help in establishing new sources of income along with the agreed-upon price for your daughter’s hand,” Eagene said.
The men attempted to take up the toast with some dignity while Alois watched them warily. Alyssa understood his actions but had trouble believing what her father did to protect his kingdom. Yet, would she do any less? This safeguarded El Faeryn from their greedy neighbors, returned their sovereignty, and gave them a future. It also robbed her of the chance to have children, just as it deprived Melbourne of the opportunity to sire his own legitimate line.
Their fathers had ensured the destiny of their crown princes, Edhar and Mordrid—who already had sons—by denying Alyssa and Melbourne a continuation of their line.
There would be no second royal line to challenge the regency. However, Alyssa could not lay claim to the throne of El Faeryn unless her brother died, and she had no interest in ruling, as her father well knew.
She would never hold a child of her own, and the reality of her future stabbed sadness through her heart, even though she had not yet even pictured her future with a husband and children. It never occurred to her to want those things. She was happy living with her family.
Alyssa was aware that Melbourne had never challenged his brother for the Carthagan throne and cemented his position as the “second heir” by fighting under him and for him. But nothing guaranteed that their offspring’s ambitions might not lead to another bitter war if they had descendants.
It took a moment to realize she was staring straight into Melbourne’s eyes, and she suspected that their thoughts veered in the same direction.
This union was not his idea, and she had as little choice as he did in the matter. She had no actual contact with werewolves in her life, and the thought of being married to one unsettled her only marginally less than having to live in a country far from her people.